Guru-itis potentially fatal to good teachers

Among professional fields of study, I am not sure any can quite match education when it comes to the prevalence of what I like to call “Guruitis”.

Guruitis is a term I use to describe the penchant that educational authorities have for adopting all manner of theories and practices based on the promotion of those ideas by certain “gurus” in the field. One need not be directly involved in education to be given guru status, rather, one must simply have a theory on how to improve educational outcomes that resonates with those who make decisions about education policy.

Over the past two decades, teachers have been subjected to a litany of new practices based on ideas promoted by such individuals. From mandatory participation in professional learning communities (PLCs) to the use of daily learning targets, teachers have endured many bouts of “the next new thing” in education, all justified by the unassailable (and often unquestioned) claim that these actions will help students learn.

To be fair, teachers often find benefit in some of these new practices. PLCs, for example, are an organizational framework by which teachers come together and work on common goals. When supported by the allocation of time and a measure of autonomy, these learning communities can be quite beneficial. Clearly defining learning targets for students at the beginning of each lesson (“Here is what you will know by the end of today’s class”) has also proven to be a popular addition to the tool chest of some teachers who like the structure that framework provides.

The challenge we face in education, however, is that often, teachers are not given the choice of which particular practice to explore. PLCs worked quite well for some teachers, but were of questionable value when teachers taught different subjects across different grade levels. Learning targets work well within classes that offer structured curriculum, but struggle to find their footing in more open ended, project based classrooms.

That is why in 2008, many people within the education field were suddenly enamoured by the work of Professor John Hattie out of the University of Melbourne. His book, Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-analysis Relating to Achievement became an international phenomena and spawned a whole bevy of follow up books and programs. The basic premise was that Hattie had found out what “good” teachers do in their classrooms to get the best results for students.

Hattie spent several years analyzing research on teaching practice, and then put together a statistical framework by which he measured the effectiveness of those practices in improving outcomes for students. He looked at six broad factors that impacted learning, including the student, the home, the school, the curricula, the teachers, and teaching and learning approaches. He originally determined that there were a total of 138 factors within those areas that would impact student learning. Eventually, Hattie increased that number to 256.

The reason this work was so well received by educators was Hattie determined the single most important factor in predicting the success of a student was teacher efficacy. Teacher efficacy was declared to have a value of 1.57 on his statistical scale, with the next closest factor coming in at 1.33. Essentially, when it came to how well kids learn, the teacher was the most important factor in predicting student success.

Hattie’s work went further, however, with its subsequent ranking of various classroom practices for their impact on student achievement. For example, using Jigsaw methods in the classroom was determined to have a positive impact rating of 1.20. Scaffolding lessons (building on prior learning) had an impact of 0.82. The aforementioned use of learning targets had a positive benefit of 0.68.

The issue that arose from this, however, was that Hattie’s work almost immediately had an impact on teacher evaluation. The math was simple, really. Good teachers have the greatest impact on student learning. Using Jigsaw strategies (for example) has a high impact on student achievement. Thus it follows that all teachers should be using Jigsaw strategies to be considered good teachers.

Fifteen years after he proposed the idea, Hattie himself is saying that math doesn’t work.

In a recent interview about an upcoming addendum to Visible Learning, Hattie explained that his original work has been widely misinterpreted. Although many jurisdictions had assumed he had created a checklist of what good teachers do, that was not the intent. His analysis of classroom practice showed positive effects for students, but concluding that the use of these techniques would result in better teaching and school improvement was not how he intended his work to be received.

“The mistake I made in the first version is with the league table of influences,” Hattie told TES magazine. “It got interpreted as me saying that you should do the things at the top and shouldn’t do the things at the bottom. And that was never my message….ultimately, you can have a teacher who doesn’t use a lot of [these strategies] and yet still has success.”

There are a number of things that strike me about this admission, not the least of which is that it comes after fifteen years. Hattie has, over the years, enjoyed a long litany of book sales and speaking engagements, driven primarily by that very interpretation of his message. Setting the record straight at this point echoes of closing the barn door behind the exiting horse.

What really has me pontificating, however, is the extent to which teachers over the past decade have been subjected to the idea that unless they were implementing these “high impact” strategies in their classrooms, they were not particularly good at their job.

To be perfectly honest, I liked Hattie’s work. So much so, in fact, I bought the book. I also had the opportunity to interview Dr. Mike Rutherford a few years back whose work closely mirrors Hattie’s, and who I also admire. I am, however, long enough in the educational tooth that I can choose which elements of each I implement, and which I discard.

Not every teacher enjoys the luxury of longevity, however, and I find myself wondering how many young teachers faced criticism and perhaps even censure, due to an oversimplified and apparently erroneous interpretation of Hattie’s research.

Education has never been simple, and teaching excellence can never be reduced to a checklist.

Claims to the contrary should always be scrutinized through a very skeptical lens, regardless of the claimant’s guru status.



Filed under Education Policy, Educational Change, Public education, Quality education, Teacher certification, Teacher Training

4 responses to “Guru-itis potentially fatal to good teachers

  1. David Decoste

    Your article on Guru-Itis was truly a great read. I was in education for many years and struggled with new approaches that seemed purely prescriptive. I always believed effective teaching comes down to two factors, the clarity of communication and the quality of questions posed by the teacher. Keep up the good work. Perhaps you might write about the impact of student centred learning and personalized learning on the achievement level of students.

  2. Pingback: Guru-itis in K-12 Distance, Online, and Blended Learning | Virtual School Meanderings

  3. Lalia Kerr

    Along with guru-itis, many teachers are hampered by what I can the Paint by Number approach to evaluating teachers. In their panic that teachers won’t do what they say, central office people create all manner of frameworks to hem teachers in and force them to follow a certain path in teaching. To me it’s like paint by number painting. You can give the same paint by number set to Picasso, Renoir and Mrs Jones from down the street and get the same product, but what artistry and joy did we lose through this. We have great teachers who need more freedom, not less

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